When I was in high school, a boy a year ahead of me lied about his age and joined the Marines. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and that’s where he was headed. I didn’t know him that well, so it was strange that a friend of his said to me, “You should write to him. He’ll like getting a letter.” Maybe it’s because I was already a committed writer, filling spiral notebooks with poems and short stories, or maybe this guy just wanted his friend to have some letters to ease the loneliness. In any event, I wrote him.

Thus began a correspondence that would go on for years. I still have his letters bound up with twine and faded with age. As a high school student, I obviously couldn’t be part of the anti-war movement, but I longed to be. I adopted anti-war slogans and criticized a government that was sending young men to die in a jungle on the other side of the world. But at night I would write letters to a boy who was in basic training, learning how to be a soldier. Learning how to kill. Our letters to each other got longer until the envelopes I received, and sent out, were thick with folded pages of confessional and increasingly familiar writing.

He began to change. I was witnessing the inevitable evolution of a boy who was being trained, and trained hard, to hate an enemy he’d never met,  to kill at a moment’s notice without remorse. One of his earliest letters, when he got to Vietnam, said, “There are more shades of green here than you could ever find in a box of crayons.”  His observations were hardly ever that innocent again.

He didn’t die in Vietnam, despite the fact that he increased his risk by signing up for a second tour. So it might seem odd that I’m writing about him on Memorial Day. But I think something did die in him. I saw him several times when he came back to the States, and the last time I saw him he frightened me a bit. His eyes were blue steel and everything about him was hard, unyielding, and lightyears away from the boy who lied to join the Marines, mostly to get away from his parents. The boy who packed up a few belongings along with his doubts, his fears, his troubled conscience over what he would be asked to do, and traveled to a jungle he knew nothing about into the heart of darkness that would change him forever.

We lost touch, although I’ve made some efforts to find him. When I think about him, I also think of all the young boys we turn into soldiers, and what dies in them even if they appear to come back whole. In the Sixties, there was a wide-eyed belief that we could have a world without wars. No one talks like that anymore. Something has died in all of us, replaced by a sad acceptance that this world is a violent place, that there will always be wars and rumors of wars. There will always be boys whose innocence will be extinguished like the fragile flame it is, in faraway places where wars rage on for years.

I think Memorial Day is a time to think about them too.


6 Responses to MEMORIAL DAY

  1. Nanci VeSota says:

    I saw first hand how that war changed young men too. A few I knew died there. I pray one day the world will know peace.

  2. david marks says:

    War, and most particularly the Vietnam war, the war of our generation, changed the spirit of the world; it changed the way young people engage in the collective, with government mandated hatred towards others of foreign lands. You always have that inherent ability to succinctly put words to vastly universal concepts, Patti. I admire that, always will. Resoundingly heartfelt and poignant, this piece epitomizes the transformative to the mature; the boy to the hardened and designed robotic target of the ‘us against them’ philosophy, and in a world where wars were once fought to maintain the freedoms we now enjoy, in fact, the freedom which allowed you to write your thoughts, Vietnam had no face, no vision of an enemy; just colors of flags and degrees of violence. This is a marvelous and eloquent article, but I must say: the boy you held so dear in innocence, may not have lost his life overseas, but his innocence was lost forever in those jungles.

  3. Rodney Wilson says:

    I’ve always felt that while one is military-age qualified at 18, one should not be combat-age qualified until both turning 20 and signing up for another enlistment period. Teenagers have no idea what they’re getting into. Twenty-years-olds likely don’t, either, but at least they’ve grown up a little before being allowed to make ultimate decisions that can’t be unmade. Better yet, of course, would be human spiritual evolution to the point that warfare is eliminated altogether. Memorial Day should be about remembering *and* about working for a world free of war.

  4. Anthony Forte says:

    I have often thought, why doesn’t the military have basic untraining for soldiers leaving active duty. Your post make me come back to that thought yet again.

  5. Lindsay Brice says:

    Seems WWII created a generation of shut-down men, many who drank too much to quiet thoughts of what they’d seen and done.

  6. William Cochran says:

    Man the Vietnam war messed up so many great young men. I was much younger than the guys being drafted but I knew most of the because they were friends with my brother. I grew up in a small town in Georgia so we knew everyone and everyone knew us. All the guys that left to go fight in Vietnam came back a very different man. It was sad to see them drifting around with seemingly no purpose or plan for life. I went too my first military funeral in the late sixies. I went with my mom and Grandmother a guy in our small community came back in a U.S. Government coffin. I remember tabs and the 21 gun salute but what I remember most was his mother crying uncontrollably when she was given the flag.
    God help our country and the world to at least attempt peace. I never want to attend another miitary funeral.
    God Bless you Patri on this memorial day.

    William P Cochran

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